Do appearances matter in advancing social change?
November 22, 2011
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The Occupy Wall Street movement continues to gather steam, and also elicit a lot of very angry negative reactions. As Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” OWS is firmly in the ridicule stage, having progressed to the point where the movement can no longer be ignored. That is a major accomplishment no matter how you look at it, although it is only getting past stage one in Gandhi’s terms.
People who either fear, resent or disagree with the OWS movement are seizing on the most irrelevant aspects of those who are protesting. They are not asking why thousands of people all over country, and the world, are protesting. They are not trying, even for one second, to understand why people might in large numbers feel disenfranchised, desperate and dispirited. They are, though, spending lot of emotional energy harping on how the demonstrators look and dress. It reminds me of the worst of school yard bullying. And OWS is doing a great job of playing into their hands.
There was a reason that Congressman John Lewis and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement dressed the way they did – in suits and ties as they sat in at lunch counters across the South or marched across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. It was not because they were hoping that a financial firm might notice their professional dress and offer them the chance to interview for a job. It was because they wanted to put a human face on the movement – a face that would look much like the very one that was fighting against them.
The folks within OWS might want to take a page out of the Civil Rights play book. Imagine what would happen if the protesters were dressed in suits and ties. Do you think the dialogue might be different? Can you image the UC Davis police pepper spraying a peaceful group of professionally dressed young adults versus a group “hippies in hoodies and jeans?” It would be a lot harder for the people who disagree with this movement to talk and act the same way. OWS is giving its detractors valuable, albeit irrelevant, ammunition with which to hammer it. I think that OWS could do a lot for their cause if they thought a bit more about what it would mean to “dress for success”. As they continue to gather steam, coalesce around a clearer set of ideas and intended outcomes, and move to stage three of this journey, they would greatly diminish their detractors’ ability to belittle them. It certainly worked 50 years ago and I bet it would work just as well today.